The Gathering Storm: Margaret MacMillan’s ‘The War That Ended Peace’

In the early part of Margaret MacMillan’s account of the prelude to World War I, the historian transports us to Paris in 1900 during the early days of the city’s world fair, the Exposition Universelle. This bold exercise in cultural diplomacy had the feel of what Epcot’s World Showcase Pavilion has to us now. Each country had its own buildings and gardens designed specifically to show off the best of what it had to offer. It’s April in Paris, the chestnut trees are in full bloom, the air is crisp, the scars of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 had ever so slowly begun to heal, and the Exposition’s general atmosphere of kitschy cheeriness filled everyone with a sense of security and optimism that Europe would enjoy peace and prosperity for years to come.

Part of the thrill of reading MacMillan’s new book, The War That Ended Peace, is to absorb oneself in the calm before the storm. Western Europe had everything ahead of it in terms of ensuring a safe and economically stable future for its people. The wars that dominated much of the 19th and early 20th century, The Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), The Crimean War (1853-56), The Russo-Turkish War (1877-78), The Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), and The Balkan Wars (1912-13) were over, and now the major European powers, many whom had monarchs related to one another through Queen Victoria’s bloodlines, could enjoy the tranquility of postwar peace and all that it entailed. Yet, that’s not what happened.

As the centenary of World War I approaches next year, looking back on those events leading up to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on 28 June 1914, one occasionally feels that the major Western powers tumbled eagerly into war. The heady jingoism of those years (with songs like “Over There”, “Keep the Home Fires Burning”, and “Die Wacht am Rhein”, and the multitude of stories and propaganda) belies the atmosphere of tension and uneasiness that led to the diplomatic failures that resulted in this global war of unprecedented violence.

Europe did not have to go to war in the summer of 1914. MacMillan’s skill as both a historian and a storyteller is to bring her narrative into a kind of slow-motion where we witness a horrible accident taking place before our very eyes. “Very little in history is inevitable,” she surmises coolly. “Yet in 1914 Europe did walk over the cliff into a catastrophic conflict which was going to kill millions of its men, bleed its economies dry, shake empires and societies to pieces, and fatally undermine Europe’s dominance of the world. The photographs of cheering crowds in the great capitals are misleading.”

MacMillan has had a good deal of experience with this complex period of the early 20th century. Her 2003 book on The Treaty of Versailles, Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World examined the intricate political negotiations and diplomatic triumphs and failures of the treaty and how a new world order across the Middle East and Asia was shaped, for better or worse, in the image of what the European powers had in mind for their imperial ambitions. Along with David Andelman’s A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today, MacMillan’s book is one of the essential, context-defining accounts of the Paris peace talks.

In The War That Ended Peace, MacMillan again employs some of the effective techniques she used in the Versailles Treaty book—the character studies of both major and lesser-known leaders and diplomats, capturing the mood and zeitgeist of a particular country and its ambitions, and placing the minutiae of crucial dialogue and casual gossip within the larger scope of major decisions that would have long-term global repercussions on foreign policy.

And the cast of characters are mesmerizing. There are the usual suspects, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Otto von Bismarck, King Edward VII and his son George V, Tsar Nicholas II, Georges Clemenceau, and Winston Churchill (then First Lord of the Admirality), David Llyod George, Woodrow Wilson among others, and then there are those who often escape the public’s gaze, who MacMillan scrutinizes in riveting detail. There’s Alfred von Tirpitz, Germany’s Secretary of State for the Navy, a complex figure who was an Anglophile (as it happens, he sent his daughter to the same school in England that I went to…) but nurtured imperial ambitions to outstrip Britain and built up the Kaiserliche Marine during the prewar years to its terrifying full glory.

Then there’s the British Admiral John Fisher, an almost Gilbert and Sullivanesque figure of drive and tenacity who pumped up the British navy as vigorously as von Tirpitz did his. There’s the French diplomat and foreign minister Théophile Delcassé, a bit like Hercule Poirot in his Gallic fastidiousness, who pushed relentlessly for French imperial holdings in North Africa and the Mediterranean and was largely responsible for the eventual alliance between France and Great Britain during the war (no easy feat given that the French usually prefer the Germans to the British in terms of cultural similarities. In 1898, French military officer and explorer Jean-Baptiste Marchand met General Horatio Herbert Kitchener in the Sudan after a grueling 14-month trek across the Nile and was offered the general’s best whiskey. “One of the greatest sacrifices I ever made for my country was to drink that horrible smoky alcohol,” Marchand sniffed.).

Jean-Leon Gerome Ferris, President Theodore Roosevelt of the United States of America and the German Kaiser Wilhelm II
in the dispute over the German Blockade of Venezuela, 1902, Oil on Canvas

The narrative of the inexorable path to war stretches across 20 chapters with each one building in heightened momentum from the previous. The halcyon days of Belle Époque Paris and Edwardian England make way for the unrest and volatility brewing across Eastern Europe and Caucasuses. By the early 1900s Russia, with its vast multiethnic empire, its burgeoning Bolshevik party and idealistic but diffident tsar, was doomed. The murder of the Austrian Archduke in Sarajevo was the spark that lit the fuse in an already exacerbated political situation among the disenfranchised Slavic populations of Central and Eastern Europe.

MacMillan is particular about one issue that seems to have led to the declaration of war among these foolhardy countries and that’s the question of sovereignty. How much a country was willing to endure in terms of taking a blow to its sense of pride and international standing was a matter of contention. In an age that produced Friedrich Nietzsche, that endurance was not as much as it may have been. The German conservative historian, Heinrich Gotthard von Treitschke (who seems to me a little like a 19th century German Glenn Beck) described sovereignty in the metaphor of a duel: “If the flag of the State is insulted, it is the duty of the State to demand satisfaction, and if satisfaction is not forthcoming, to declare war, however trivial the occasion may appear, for the State must strain every nerve to preserve its [self-respect].” In many ways, pride, honor, vanity, and the competitive drive for imperial conquest is what drove the Western powers into World War I.

The War That Ended Peace is exactly what it promises: a sweeping, engrossing account of the trends, ideas, people and decisions, both wise and catastrophic, that plunged Europe into its grimmest, most vicious war in modern memory. The war would result in some 37 million dead with Britain losing two percent of its entire population while France and Germany each lost nearly three percent of theirs. War memorials in places as diverse as Wolverhampton, Monchy-le-Preux, Hohenstein, and of course, Flanders Field, are lined for miles with the names of their dead young men.

A clever, unsettling question in MacMillan’s book regards our own current perceptions towards diplomacy and war. With the wars of the 19th and 20th century behind us, we’re expected to know better. But do we? MacMillan compares our terror of al-Qaeda with the 19th century fear of the Bolsheviks and the anarchists. “The globalization of the world before 1914 has been matched only by our own times since the end of the Cold War… so why did the long peace not continue?” MacMillan’s grand narrative helps us visualize this eternal question in new ways.

RATING 9 / 10